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Stolen oysters not recovered, but ‘volunteers’ have been found

Replacements for ocean biofiltering project will be on the way soon

The Maui Nui Resource Council has been unable to locate the not-safe-to-eat Pacific oysters (pictured) stolen last month from cages in a pilot project to clean Maalaea Harbor. Photos courtesy of the Maui Nui Resource Council

The not-safe-to-eat Pacific oysters, used to clean ocean water in Maalaea Bay that were stolen from their cages, have not been found but their native cousins may have volunteered to become their replacements, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council said Wednesday.

The oysters were stolen from cages last month, and the marine resource council put out a notice saying that the oysters, which filter pollutants from the ocean, could cause gastrointestinal illness and not to purchase them.

Anne Rillero, communications, community outreach and development manager, said the marine resource council received a call from a woman whose dog dug up oysters at a West Maui beach. Amy Hodges, programs and operations manager, went to check out the report.

“The oysters buried in the sand were huge — and were not our oysters, which have a frilly shell and are smaller,” Rillero said Wednesday in an email. “So we never found out who took them.”

There still are oysters offshore in the pilot project, and the marine resource council is looking at ways to secure them better, including security cameras and special tags, she said. Media reports about the oysters being unsafe for consumption “should also help to keep potential thieves away,” she said.

Cages that housed the Pacific oysters stolen last month from Maalaea Harbor were clearly marked as toxic.

In late January, 518 caged Pacific oysters were dropped into Maalaea Bay in a project by the marine council and others to clean pollutants and harmful bacteria from the ocean in the island’s first-ever oyster filtration project. One oyster has the potential to clean 50 gallons a day, project officials said. The hope is that they will remove sediment, bacteria, heavy metals, PCBs, oil, micro-plastics and runoff nutrients from the water through filter-feeding.

The Pacific oysters are not native to Hawaii and cannot reproduce.

Rillero said the marine resource council is growing thousands of replacements for the stolen oysters, and some native oysters appear to “volunteer” for the job.

The native Hawaiian oysters (Dendostrea sandvicensis) began to voluntarily attach themselves to the outside of oyster cages that the organization had installed in Maalaea Harbor. Over a period of months, they grew into tiny oysters called “spat.”

“It was MNMRC’s goal to incorporate using Hawaiian oysters, which are native to Hawaii, for this project starting in December 2020. And here they were, appearing on our cages,” said Hodges. “These baby oysters were truly a gift from nature.”

A small bag of 100 Hawaiian oysters were gathered Tuesday under the marine resource council’s state permit for the project. The council coordinated with the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center in Hilo, a project of the University of Hawaii-Hilo, to follow the correct protocol to safely collect and ship the oysters to the Hilo center for spawning and propagation. The state Department of Agriculture office on Maui inspected the oysters before they were shipped.

The tiny oysters will be well-fed and protected at the Hilo center, where they will spawn, the marine resources council said. Their progeny will grow larger and more quickly at the center than those in the wild. About 3,000 oysters will be shipped back to Maui in December to be raised in cages as part of the oyster bioremediation project.

“We believe that these oysters are well suited to the unique conditions of this area,” said Hodges.

She said that the “goal is to use the oysters to improve the ocean water quality to Maalaea Bay, to provide cleaner, healthier water for the coral reefs and local fish populations.”

“The goal is to make Maalaea Bay a better place for fishing, paddling, surfing, swimming and beach days for the entire community,” she continued. “We’re glad to have the oysters ‘volunteering’ to help us reach that goal.”

All of the oysters are being used to clean polluted water and are unsafe to eat, the marine resources center said. The oysters may carry vibrio bacteria, which can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria and can be found in warm coastal waters and harbors, where it infects oysters.

The cages housing the oysters are clearly marked with warning tags saying: “Toxic. Do not eat. Research in Progress. Do not Remove. Maui Nui Marine Resource Council.”

It is illegal to catch, take, kill, possess, remove, sell or offer for sale oysters or clams from the waters of the state, according to fishing regulations.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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